At The Movies: Arms of Strangers


Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Losing your parents, giving up your children: Are any emotions more raw than these?

Not for kids. Not for parents.

And not for the 10,000 children — Jewish and others — who were bundled off on trains from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to foster homes in Britain in an extraordinary rescue operation during the months immediately before World War II.

Their story — one of heartbreak, loneliness, fear and guilt — is told in ``Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,'' a documentary produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, whose mother was one of those saved by a ``Kinder'' train.

The experience was so searing that Oppenheimer said her mother, Sylva Avramovici Oppenheimer, would not discuss the subject. It was only after her mother's death — and the discovery of letters written to her mother in England by her grandparents, who died in the Holocaust — that Oppenheimer began her quest.

Skillfully mixing old film footage with survivors' photos and interviews, ``Into the Arms of Strangers'' examines the wave of anti-Semitism that accompanied the Nazis' rise to power, then delves into the ache of the children's departures and the shock of living with foster families in another country. Many of the children never saw their parents again.

``I ceased to be a child when I boarded that train in Prague,'' said one survivor, Eva Hayman.

``The parting was terrible. That's the one thing I have never forgotten,'' echoed Ursula Rosenfeld.

The documentary's dramatic appeal ratchets up minute by minute, for the audience knows what those in the film would only later find out: The youngsters on the trains were saved from the Holocaust, which eventually killed 1.5 million children.

How you wish to shout out warnings to the innocents: Don't fight with your parents on the last day! Hurry up and get those exit papers! Don't give in to despair and pull your child out of the train window!

One parent did just that, and instead of being safe in England, daughter Lory Cahn went on to endure a half-dozen concentration camps before being liberated at Bergen Belsen.

Visually, the documentary is enthralling, especially in its contrasts. Well-dressed Jewish children play happily in parks in 1938, while in other scenes Hitler youth groups swagger through the streets, chilling in their pressed uniforms.

The turning point is Kristallnacht — Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazi troops ransacked Jewish businesses and rounded up 30,000 Jewish men. Little-known footage of burning synagogues, rows upon rows of broken shop windows and anti-Semitic graffiti convey the rising fear ahead of the first Kinder train's departure from Berlin on Dec. 1.

The British host families varied in their generosity, but they cared for these foster children for years during the deprivations of war. In an ironic twist, their efforts often were not appreciated, for the Kindertransport children were struggling with their own private grief and shock.

``None of the foster parents with whom I stayed — and there were five of them— could stand me for very long, but all of them had the grace to take in a Jewish child,'' said Lore Segal.

The best way to see this film is with your teen-ager. After two intense hours revisiting the elemental bond between parent and child, the grit of daily life washes away. You begin to think: Why were we fighting about her getting a bellybutton ring? She is here, by my side, and our life together is just what all the Kindertransport parents and children so desperately missed.

The Warner Bros. release was written and directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, narrated by Dame Judi Dench. It was produced in cooperation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which plans a related exhibit of Kindertransport photos and artifacts this fall. The movie is not yet rated. Running time: 117 minutes.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G —General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG—Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13—Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R—Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17—No one under 17 admitted.

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On the Net:

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: http://www.ushmm.org.